Spring has officially arrived in Madrid and the promise of blue skies, balmy temperatures and light sunshine has made weekend excursions impossible to resist: quitting my Saturday job to free up a full weekend has become a matter of urgency. However, as I am somewhat reliant on the wodge of notes I receive every month from the Saturday school, until Summer has arrived for real and the electricity bill has dwindled to a maneageble figure, one-day weekends will remain the reality. As such, I have discovered an array of bite size excursions from Madrid, all easily doable within one day. However, a recent day-trip to Monfragüe, a national park in the southwest corner of Extremadura, proved to be a little optimistic.
No stranger to long, bumb-numbing car journeys, the prospect of spending some four to five hours chugging along the motorway and back didn’t dampen my enthusiasm; it was arriving in the park and seeing first-hand the spectacular scenery that made me regret squashing the trip into one day. Almost as soon as you enter, you are confronted with breathtaking views. Monfragüe combines craggy, rocky mountains with lush, fresh greenery and wide, aquamarine rivers that serpentine through the valleys. The winding roads crisscross the valleys, skirt cliff edges and sweep past clusters of cork trees, their trunks stripped down to a rich red.
We drove directly to the picturesque pueblo of Villareal de San Carlos, a sleepy, cobbled street in the middle of the hillside that provides a starting point for a variety of walks through the park. Stiff-legged after the journey and keen to breath in some fresh, I headed straight out into the hills and, despite choosing a relatively short 10km trail, a loop that passed by the viewpoint Cerro Gimio, a whole morning slipped by without my even realising it. I usually adopt a methodical uphill plod to tackle a mountain. In comparison, when traversing the sloping valleys of Monfragüe, I lingered as I walked, pausing periodically to savour the scenery or roaming off the track to explore the landscape. The narrow, rocky track I took zigzagged through the undergrowth climbed up and down the sloping hills and grazed the edge of streams. The trees were flush from winter, some sporting the tentative buds of spring blossoms and humming with bees hovering nearby.
As if admiring the scenery wasn’t reward enough, the trail I took had a surprise in store at the end. As the track started to spiral towards Cerro Gimio, I heard the rush of beating wings and glanced skywards: a large vulture was cruising just above me. A black silhouette framed by the sun, its thin shadow flickered over the trees as it swooped across the valley. Although I scrambled clumsily for my camera, my hasty snaps captured nothing but blue sky. However, I was to have plenty of second chances. The soft thumping of wings didn’t stop, and a trio of vultures followed just behind the first, all gliding low enough in the sky for me to admire the distinctive curve of their beak and elegant length of their wings.
Behind this trio, followed another pair, then another group of four: a continuous stream of birds. They swooped effortlessly overhead towards the horizon, joining a spiral of thin, black curves sweeping in broad circles above the hillside. Within a few minutes, the skyline had become inundated with their elegant shadows. Having never seen a vulture before, I was gob smacked at the spiralling whirl of birds in front of me.
What I didn’t realise (somewhat naively) when I set off around Monfragüe, is that the park is famous for its birdlife. It houses the world’s biggest colony of Black Vultures and a large colony of the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle, as well as three different varieties of vultures, five different types of eagles and three different breeds of kites. It is a much-frequented haven for bird enthusiasts, attracting hundreds of bird-watchers annually.
However, bird-lover or not, Monfragüe is the ideal escape for any nature enthusiast seeking a break from city-life and sight-seeing. Glimpsing just a fraction of Monfragüe made me instantly regret organising such a fleeting visit. It would be easy to while away a week roaming the landscape, enjoying the wildlife and exploring the pueblos. It has certainly wet my appetite for a long weekend in the near future.